History: Passenger plane crashes into Escambia Bay

This “Public Record” column was originally published in Dec. 9, 2010. It’s the story of two brave man whose heroism saved 55 lives.

The Plane Crash

On May 8, 1978, National Airlines Flight 193 crashed into Escambia Bay while attempting to land at the Pensacola Municipal Airport. It was three miles short of its destination.

The Boeing 727, nicknamed “Donna,” originated in Miami. After stops in Melbourne, Tampa, New Orleans and Mobile it was headed for the final destination of the day: Pensacola. The plane began its approach shortly after a thick fog had settled over the bay. Despite low visibility, Captain George Kunz decided to attempt the scheduled landing at 9:22 p.m. Just minutes before, an Eastern Airlines jet was rerouted to Mobile on account of the weather.

The 58 passengers aboard Flight 193 assumed they were coming in for a routine landing when there was a sudden crash and water began rushing into the cabin. The bay was shallow at the impact point, and the plane came to rest half-submerged in 12 feet of water.

In a fortunate turn of events, Flight 193 wasn’t the only one who was lost in the fog that night. Tugboat Captain Glenn McDonald and deckhand Bill Kenney were off course on their way to repair a railroad trestle north of the I-10 bridge. The two men sprang into action when they saw the wayward jet land just 300 yards away from them. As passengers escaping the airliner jumped into the water, McDonald piloted his tugboat over to them. The tugboat was pushing an empty barge that Kenney used for a life raft as he began plucking survivors out of the bay.

Kenney, a former Marine who served in Vietnam, hung from the barge by his feet while pulling the panicked passengers to safety. He also dove into the jet fuel-filled water to swim after others who had drifted away. After all the survivors were taken from the water, Kenney laid a plank from the barge to the plane in order to rescue others who were marooned on the plane’s fuselage. When some of the passengers were too frightened to navigate the plank, Kenney crossed over, put the victims on his shoulders and carried them back to the barge.

All throughout Kenney’s heroics, McDonald was piloting the tugboat and maintaining a spotlight on the water. In the end, the duo was able to rescue 55 passengers that night. Three people tragically drowned in the accident and several others were seriously injured. Sadly, one of the deceased was the mother of a two-year-old boy who was the first to be rescued from the crash.

The National Transportation Safety Board ruled that the crash was most likely the result of an unprofessional landing approach by the flight crew. The board said the three-man crew failed to properly monitor the rate of descent and altitude. It was also found that they disengaged a warning device that sounded when the plane approached ground level. The three men were subsequently fired as the airline went to the task of settling lawsuits.